HARRISONBURG, Va. — The U.S. military has found the remains of a World War II pilot who was last seen in a dogfight over Germany almost 75 years ago, the Department of Defense said Thursday.
Lt. William W. Shank never returned from the 1943 fight. His fellow airmen last saw him straightening out his P-38 Lightning after pulling out of a dive.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency confirmed this month that bone material and other evidence found in a farm field in northern Germany belonged to the 24-year-old airman from Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Chuck Prichard, a spokesman for the agency, said officials will notify his family. He declined to identify Shank’s relatives without their permission. During the military’s search for Shank, a relative had submitted DNA for analysis, one of many tools used for identification.
Until this month, Shank was among more than 70,000 American service members from World War II who remain unaccounted for. There are about 83,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
On Nov. 13, 1943, Shank’s U.S. Army squadron was protecting allied bombers flying on a mission to Bremen, in northern Germany, when it encountered 40 to 50 German aircraft.
“They got into quite a firefight,” Prichard said. “He was pulling out of a dive and flying straight, and then they never saw him again. Nobody saw him crash or parachute out.”
After the war, in the late 1940s, Shank was among missing personnel that the U.S. military set out to find in Germany.
The Americans had the coordinates for where Shank’s plane was last seen. They also found a witness who said he a saw the same type of plane crash in a field on a farm on the day Shank disappeared. They also found German records of the incident.
The unit did some digging — but found nothing.
Several decades passed before the U.S. Military embarked on another search.
This time, Prichard said, the Americans enlisted the help of a German researcher, Werner Oeltjebruns, who led them to more witnesses of the crash. They included the man who was mayor of the village at the time, Prichard said.
The witnesses led the Americans to a spot in a farm field. They dug again, finding parts of the plane and bone matter belonging to Shank.